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Weekend Wrap: The Trade Deadline Arrives on the Heels of a Crazy Couple of Days

Mats Zuccarello, we hardly knew ye

Dallas Stars v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The trade deadline is at 2pm CST.

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At least the weekend wasn’t boring, right? Here’s hoping this isn’t outdated by sunrise.

There’s a lot to get through as we wait to see whether the Stars make any last-ditch moves today, so I’ll break things up a bit. Poor choice of words there, perhaps.

Dallas acquires Ben Lovejoy for Connor Carrick and a 2019 3rd-round Pick

Waking up Saturday, I was expecting Dallas to do something with the defensive group. Forced to guess, I would’ve said Dallas would move Julius Honka and another asset for someone who could take some minutes from the most one-dimensional defenseman in their lineup, Roman Polák. However, we learned even more about what Dallas values in their defense group. And hey, guess what, it’s not things like “measurable performance,” but rather much more nebulous, subjective qualities like the right sort of experience and mental toughness. What I’m saying is, the Stars traded a 3rd-round pick for two months of a 35-year-old defenseman who is not as good as an ambulatory Marc Methot but can at least kill penalties.

This trade, in other words, would make at least some sense if the Stars’ penalty kill werent in the top 10 of the NHL already. But, just as the Stars panicked at the 2016 deadline at the prospect of entering the playoffs with their mobile-but-admittedly-green blueline and tried for Dan Hamhuis and then succeeded in getting Kris Russell, so too are these Stars convinced that they might not succeed in the playoffs because—and I am not making this up—they are not defensively sound enough.

My friend Carloyn mentioned after the game Saturday that Jim Nill’s track record with trading for forwards has largely been pretty good, while his history with defensemen has been, er, less superb. The Lovejoy acquisition, which took another pick from the Stars’ now shallow pool of draft picks in the next two years, is more or less in line with that Russell trade, except they didn’t need to throw in a B prospect like Brett Pollock.

Lovejoy’s first game (in Chicago) was not exactly promising, with a penalty and a horrible turnover to surrender a breakaway on his initial CV. But if you ever wondered what makes Tampa Bay different from Dallas, all you have to do is realize that Dallas thinks they are a better team with the surprisingly good Taylor Fedun (who didn’t help his cause with a rough game against Carolina) and a certain first-round pick in the press box in favor of—and again, I am not making this up—Jamie Oleksiak, Roman Polák, and Ben Lovejoy.

If I am reading things right, the Stars believe Polák’s work ethic (which is sterling) and toughness make him indispensable because large, while they believe Oleksiak’s size and know-quantity-ness make him more reliable than Carrick or Honka (or even Fedun on his off side). Again, these are decision made with no basis in facts that we have access to, but perhaps the Stars have proprietary measurements that show Lovejoy being an upgrade over Fedun. One hopes that trades for meaningful assets are not made based on the scouting of the last couple of games, after all. If so, then these are decisions made subjectively, in hopes that conventional hockey wisdom about size and toughness and defense-first mentalities will win the day. We shall see if that is the case.

The hope with Lovejoy, of course, is that he will, in addition to defensing real good, prove another good mentor for his defense partner. as he was said to be for Will Butcher in New Jersey. It’s so endearingly earnest of the Stars to then pair Lovejoy with Oleksiak in Chicago (at least to start—things got shuffled thanks to injuries, and he ended up playing with Lindell a fair bit), but I suppose it’s a bit much to ask Dallas to believe that their spectacular goaltending would still be useful in front of a more transition-capable defense. Maybe next year. Anyway, at least the Stars officially won’t have to rely on any of their non-Heiskanen first-round picks to do anything, since that seems like something they have been legitimately worried about all season long.

Dallas acquires Mats Zuccarello for two conditional picks (2nd and a 3rd)

As the Stars Alumni Game began Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be sitting down by the glass with some friends. The Zuccarello news trickled into our phones as things got started, and it was perhaps the only thing that could approach the joy I felt at seeing Ales Hemsky playing hockey while a mic’d up Marty Turco kept saying, “Shoot the puck, Ales.” (Side note: Jere Lehtinen is legitimately still really good at hockey.)

You know all the conditions by now, so of course this trade will end up looking a lot different if Dallas wins two rounds of the playoffs and decides to re-sign Zuccarello this offseason (which they probably shouldn’t, for my money, unless they get some more picks elsewhere before the draft). But it was nice to see an immediate impact from Zuccarello, who really did look like the best deadline acquisition since Brad Richards in his debut. For a while, at least.

It’s so unbelievably cruel. The Stars managed to get an impact top-six forward without giving up any of their top prospects we assumed they’d need to include in such a trade, and then he gets immediately injured for a month by blocking a shot and breaking his arm. It’s hard to remember a crueler twist of fate for a new acquisition, unless you count any of the other players signed by the Dallas Stars in the last three seasons. Poor guys.

It’s tough to pronounce anything with certainty given the plague Dallas was struck with throughout the lineup, but Zuccarello really did bring this team a multivalent quality they’ve lacked all year. Some of that is probably first-game jump and Red Bull in a loud Chicago barn, but that really is the sort of player he is. Zuccarello makes things happen, and that’s been a quality painfully lacking in most of the forward lines for most of the year. No, the Stars weren’t just one player away from winning a Cup—no team is, on paper, with Tampa being so monstrous this year—but if the idea is to get better, Zuccarello unequivocally does that. Or did.

Does Jim Nill make another move today? I really don’t know. I think it’ll depend on which teams get desperate to unload their pending UFAs as the deadline creeps up, Given how spare the cupboard is for Dallas, I’d expect a move to add something for the sake of adding something, but nothing huge. It’s tough to move heaven and earth without a first-round pick this decade to offer.

But then again, Jim Nill loves those sorts of trades. If he’s got the leverage, he’ll move. That’s how Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza found their way to Dallas for peanuts (relatively speaking), so I wouldn’t be shocked to hear about something trickling in at the wire. This has been my best effort at ensuring a trade will break five minutes before this gets published today.

The Games: Carolina and Chicago

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least touch on the contests this weekend. And heaven forbid we ever be remiss.

That Carolina game was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen, and I have seen myself many hundreds of Stars games. If ever it were obvious that a team was flat from the getgo, it was thus on Saturday. You saw turnovers, posts, and an inability to disrupt generally anything Carolina wanted to do.

Ben Bishop finally made his return, and he was rusty, although I’m not sure even the Nashville Edition of Anton Khudobin could have gotten a point for Dallas in that one. That said, Bishop made some saves, but he also didn’t have an answer for a Justin Faulk wrister on the power play, and he generally seemed about as comfortable as the rest of the team, which is to say not very.

That said, Jamie Benn could have given an early counterpunch with a breakaway, but unlike Radek Faksa in Chicago, Benn couldn’t find the net. One of these days, we will understand why someone with a shot as lethal as Benn converted his breakaway repertoire into nothing but backhand shots along the ice, but I fear that day is not close at hand.

The Stars did seem to score another goal on an odd-man rush, but Blake Comeau unfortunately decided to steamroll Curtis McElhinney and completely sabotage any chance of a response from Dallas late in the second. It was Comeau’s second penalty of the period, and both of them led to pucks in the net that didn’t help Dallas, as the first one came on the heels of, you guessed it, another Brett Ritchie penalty. That was where Faulk’s shot came from, with the Hurricanes on a two-man advantage that didn’t need nearly as much time as Dallas’s did in Chicago to get the job done. But props to Radulov and Spezza on Sunday for doing what had to be done in an extraordinarily tough game. That goal provoked no small amount of shouting in this quarter, I can promise you.

All of it was bad on Saturday, though. Klingberg, Heiskanen and Spezza couldn’t pass with any kind of consistency, and Radulov’s absence with illness was noticeable in all the worst ways. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Zuccarello trade (the pursuit of which was in the works for a little bit now from what’s been said) came right as this debacle wound down. That’s a cry for help if ever I’ve seen one.

Perhaps the abominable effort in Carolina led to the Chicago thriller, or perhaps the Blackhawks are just worse than Carolina. Either way, Chicago was a lot more fun until it wasn’t. The Faksa goal (which again, came on a shot, which again, is allowed on a breakaway) was perfectly juxtaposted with the Dickinson fight in the background.

The Stars were finding more ways to gain the zone in this one, but they still looked a bit slower than Chicago, which lines up with the five-to-two penalty ratio they absorbed in this one. But hey, opportunity is what you make of it, and the Stars cashed in when they had to while holding Chicago scoreless on six minutes of power play time in the final 7+ minutes of the game. Ideally, of course, you wouldn’t have Ben Lovejoy and Roman Polák taking penalties in that situation, but you know, defensive defensemen are going to take their penalties. If you’re going to ice a lineup stuffed with one-way defenders (that one way being towards Anton Khudobin), you might as well make them big ones, I suppose. Anyhow, it was a really gutsy effort by the skaters along with a crown jewel of a performance by Khudobin, and so Dallas walked away with two points in game where they didn’t really look like the better team outside of a couple stretches.

In all seriousness though, I really do give the Stars a lot of credit for pulling this game out. Losing this one to Chicago on top of the Zuccarello injury (let alone whatever upper body issue Benn is dealing with) would have brought back way too many memories of last season’s collapse, and this team needs to write a new chapter as badly as ever.

Anton Khudobin might be the author of that chapter, as he’s faced 45 or more shots in all three of his last three starts—and won two of them. Ben Bishop is going to be a key player for Dallas down the stretch, absolutely, but Khudobin has shown an ability to make saves (or almost saves) on shots he has no business stopping. Whatever happens in the next six weeks or so, Dallas is close enough to rent players in the first place because of the netminders. Chicago, you may recall, had Cam Ward to offer. Goaltending matters.

It hurts when your rentals get hurt, yeah. And Zuccarello’s dynamic play before the blocked shot makes it sting even more, if that’s possible. His goal was really just a cherry on top of some out-and-out great passes to go along with his overall skating, defense, and puck pursuit. But that goal was also a great shot in a great spot, and the Stars have had those pucks go to far too many players who have hesitated, missed the net, or outright deferred at times. Bringing in someone who just does the thing can invigorate the bench, and man, did the Stars ever need that after laying the egg of eggs on Saturday. Sometimes it’s not the player themselves, but what the player means to their team. Zuccarello, for a bit, meant a lot. He means something else in absentia, but that’s for Jim Nill to figure out.

I don’t know what Nill will do today, and I don’t even know what Nill should do today. There’s cost either way, and adding another rental could be really bad for this team if they don’t make the playoffs. But they got two points on Sunday that will get them a bit closer, and that’s the whole idea. Honestly, if I’m a fan, I’m ravenous for a playoff series with Benn and Seguin at this point. If you can get there without trading literally every young player and draft pick, it’s probably worth considering. Sometimes, it’s not the playoffs themselves that matter, but what the playoffs mean to the team. For Dallas, the playoffs are equal parts elusive and alluring, and that Zuccarello trade felt good for two periods. Maybe I’m just the idiot friend trying to get his buddy to risk prison time in order to steal a Fabergé egg, but the last couple of years have felt like prison enough already. Better to have loved and lost, right? And even better to have loved and won, even if that winning is just enough to extend the season for a couple weeks. Time is precious, and I’d like to spend more of it watching hockey—provided it’s not hockey like we saw Saturday. As Horace said:

Sapias vina liques et spatio brevi spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Here we go.